Crackdown on dodgy F2P practice might drive the bandits out of gaming's Wild West

The UK’s Office of Fair Trading has published its first official guidelines regarding the use of in-game purchases in free-to-play games. It’s all fairly straightforward, sensible stuff, designed to put a stop to the dodgy, misleading practices that have plagued (particularly) mobile games over the last couple of years.

You can find a pretty clear breakdown of the new principles in the OFT’s PDF on the subject, but the general gist is that in-game purchases relating to content or progress must be flagged up up-front, as must in-game advertising and personal data use. Games cannot be ambiguous about payments, or disguise invitations to use them as gameplay messages, and they should not aggressively coerce players into paying, particularly in games aimed at kids. Gameplay alternatives must be given equal billing, and purchases should not happen via the assumed consent of the account holder.

All of that sounds like simple, basic decency and honest business practice. And it’s obviously good that these rulings now exist. But this all raises a bit of a problem, too. Or rather, it highlights an existing one all too well. The fact is, there’s nothing radical or draconian about the OFT’s report. None of it is rocket science. As I said, it’s just a call for basic decency. But this response has been deemed to be necessary, and that just shows how problematic the various F2P markets have become.

I’m not saying that F2P is inherently bad practice. Personally, I don’t care for the fragmented gameplay experiences it tends to create, but that’s a taste thing. It’s just not for me. I prefer a fully featured game from the off. But free-to-play can legitimately exist as a business model. Taking all personal preferences out of the equation, it’s technically just a different way of monetising games, and the players who like it are welcome to use it.

The thing is, badly-executed micro-transactions have not been the only problem in this emerging market. In fact, rather than the source of the problem, I’ve long seen the dodgier free-to-play models as symptomatic of a more troublesome bigger picture. It’s one that I’ve seen plenty of times before in the early days of other industries.

When a new product or business model appears, it's always rife for cheap, hit-and-run exploitation by less dedicated parties. The audience will be naive about how things work, as the product or medium in question will still be working that out itself. Worse, there will often be minimal directly applicable legislation ready. Thus, there will be a brief but lucrative window for immense, not entirely scrupulous profit. Need a non-F2P example? Look at the glut of cheap, generically branded shovelware that hit the Wii once the console’s vast but hardly-discerning user-base became apparent. Hell, check out the number of dodgy cloned Twitter feeds farming users and bandying around copyrighted images right now.

Let’s be honest here, the mobile/F2P/social field—like many before it--has been filled shameless cloners, copyright trolls and bandwagon-jumpers for a while. And that, more than any particular F2P model, has given this particular area of gaming the stigma it now has. That, and Apple’s notoriously laissez-faire attitude to dealing with any issues that arise via games on the AppStore.

Hopefully, this OFT ruling will be the first crumbling brick that brings that castle down. It will require adoption of similar ground-rules worldwide, but it could just fix things. The market is already showing signs of shaping up. Developers are getting much better at striking a fair balance with freemium game design. After numerous fiscal problems, arguably resulting from short-view opportunism, even Zynga is now branching out into ‘proper’ gaming, via investments in respected tech companies, and headed up by a new CEO with decades of legitimate experience at EA and Microsoft. The signs are good that things are maturing.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with free-to-play, mobile or social gaming. But like any industry or business model, to become sustainable they need to run an open and legitimate business. It’s time to sweep out the rot and clean up the Wild West that the field has become. That, more than F2P as a model in and of itself, is what needs to happen in order to turn things around. Here’s hoping the OFT report is just the first step.

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